From the life and times of the State executioner, Nata Mullick (which was the subject of an earlier documentary, One Day From A Hangman’s Life), the Calcutta-based Films Division filmmaker, Joshy Joseph, transported us to the life and times of a young Manipuri named Tom Sharma, by means of Making The Face, a shorter film but which nonetheless took a similar compelling look at an unusual individual caught in unusual circumstances.
Manipur is beautiful, beleaguered. Beautiful because Nature made it so; beleaguered because for many years now the Indian army and paramilitary forces have been occupying it with the stated intention of protecting it from ‘anti-national elements’. The relentless violence unleashed by the men in uniform to ‘protect’ peace is vehemently criticized by right-thinking people within and without the State, but this has not impressed New Delhi which apparently thinks it is doing the right thing by doing what it is doing in the name of national security.
However, truth to tell, no amount of undeserved persecution can diminish the courage and creativity enshrined in the lives of Manipur’s best inhabitants. The spirit to give life a chance despite everything, continues unabated. This attitude is memorably captured in the daily struggles of Tom Sharma, a tall, slim, long-haired, androgynous-looking make-up artist who thrives on popular demand in different sections of society in and around the small but busy capital settlement of Imphal. Tom flying on his two-wheeler, his raincoat flapping in the wind like giant bird wings, is a common sight in Imphal. He flits from marriage to marriage, fashion show to fashion show, or from one Manipuri dance recital to the next, with rare grace, finesse and confidence – the attributes one would expect from a born artist. The beneficiaries of his art are, in almost all cases, young women raring to go in a variety of private or public expressions.
Till now, Tom Sharma’s life reads like a fairy tale, perhaps. But, of course, there is no such thing as uninterrupted happiness; and in the case of Tom, his travails and his anguish are to be traced to the fact that he is a gay man in a society which, like the rest of the larger Indian society, takes a dim view of those committed to same-sex love. Behind the smiling face and easy mingling with one and all – men and women, old and young, the affluent, the middle-class and the poor – there lurk unease, a restlessness, the sadness of the marginalized and the excluded. Tom’s parents are not prepared to have him in the house since they think he is an embarrassment at best and a disgrace at worst, so he visits his mother in the bazaar where she runs a small tea-stall. But even here, Joseph’s images seem to suggest that she wishes to have as little to do with her son as possible. To add to the tension in the young man’s life, his former lover has taken a wife, and he has to live under one roof with the couple.
However, what saves him from complete alienation is the friendship of other gay men, most of whom are in the fashion or entertainment business; and, even more importantly, his close ties with a young woman to whom he is so close as to bare everything that goes on in his bleeding heart. The fact that he is a kind of social figure due to the high quality of his professional work, also saves him from being an emotional wreck. He never shows his wounds to outsiders with whom he has a warm relationship. The humour of the man is revealed when in a shot showing him preparing to cast his vote, he describes himself to an election official as being ‘fifty-fifty’. This is in reply to a query about his sex status! Spurned by his biological family, Tom Sharma seeks and finds a niche for himself in the midst of other outsiders, not all of whom belong to the same sexual orientation as his. From the mirth and gaiety with which they receive him, it is clear that these people are more than happy to have him in their midst. Such is the mysterious and unfathomable nature of human relationships. Known families fall by the wayside in the heat of trying circumstances; simultaneously, new families pop up when and where they are least expected.
Deftly and imaginatively mixing images of a latter-day neo-realism as present in the deprived lives of people, with smooth snatches of poetic realism devised by the director, Joseph fashioned a riveting half-hour portrait of the artist in both distress and quiet defiance. Tom Sharma’s story is narrated in the backdrop of the crisis of identity that haunts Manipur every moment of the torrid day and the sleepless night.
In 2009, Making The Face was, rather surprisingly, declared the best film in the category of ‘Family Welfare’ in the national awards. In a sense, the award not only gave a face – not a made-up face but a real face – to the sexually faceless in Manipur and, by extension, to the similarly ignored and persecuted in the rest of the country, but it decisively indicated that a section of society was slowly coming of age in matters that had previously been kept under wraps.
Mercifully, many a perceptive Indian citizen with a keen interest in creative and meaningful cinema did not fail to note the category in which Joseph’s film was recognized. In the largely conservative, homophobic Indian society where its attitudes of contempt and condemnation are known to stem from ignorance, lead to prejudice and end in cruelty, it must have been a difficult task for the jury to give legitimacy and, who knows, even respectability to a gay artist’s deeds and demeanours by including him within the purview of the ‘Family’. Where this jury had shown fearlessness and farsight, an earlier jury had denied the same film a place in the Indian Panorama showcase of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa in 2008. Clearly, the earlier group of worthies had taken a less than elevated view of the artistry and truth contained in the film.
The question of trying to understand a text by placing it in a certain context is an old one. But it calls for a quantum shift in one’s way of looking at and assessing things, which is admittedly no easy task. Perhaps, it would not be a mistake to claim that the national awards jury were emboldened to give Making The Face its due by the epochal judgement of the Delhi High Court decriminalizing same-sex relations between consulting adults. This is not to say that the jury was innocent of the artistic worth of the film, but only to stress the belief that an enlightened and inclusivist approach on the part of the legislature, the judiciary and the media can have long-term, wide-ranging beneficial effects for both the individual and society at large. It can now truly be said that, influenced by the occasional progressive development in the public domain, the national film awards, for one thing, are inching towards maturity. Hitherto, many an artistic creation was given short shrift if it dared to tread on forbidden territory, but, hopefully, no longer.
Lindsay Anderson, a major figure in the film and theatre history of Britain in the second half of the twentieth century, said no work of art is worth much if it lacks in social relevance. What Joshy Joseph did by means of his compassionate and occasionally humourous portrait of a young man who revels in public affection by day but is hounded by demons without a name once he withdraws into his unlit or half-lit private spaces, is to have brought him in from the cold to his rightful place in the ranks of family, community, society. The power and passion of Joseph’s deeply-felt images light up before our eyes the despair of a people driven to revolt and the plea of a subaltern artist asking for a little understanding and caring. Where the two portraits merge is born the art and the philosophy of the uncommon filmmaker.
Joshy Joseph’s creative involvement in the affairs of Manipur has drawn him to the hill State repeatedly. The attraction he feels for the average Manipuri has resulted in several documentaries and one fiction film heavily laced with social realities. It is by now well-known that the first thing a visitor to Imphal notices is that the young rickshaw-pullers there are loathe to show their faces, hence the common practice of covering the face and wearing a cap. The intention is to ensure a condition of anonymity from prying eyes. By covering the face from public view/recognition, they are seeking another social identity for themselves. They are ashamed of the profession they have to practise in order to earn a living, so they wear a ‘fresh face’, so to say. Wearing The Face, the documentary Joseph made prior to Making The Face, emphasized the social reality of hiding the actual face/identity behind a new-found mask, whereas in the latter film the intention was to question whether the ‘prettification’ of faces belonging to the transgender community wasn’t a camouflage to hide the socially unacceptable nature of its sexual orientation and lifestyle. Although a section of the urban or semi-urban Manipuri society is slowly coming to accept the queer, the ‘other’, the transgender as a part of the whole, people like Tom Sharma still have a long way to go before they can sleep the good night’s sleep.
Arguably, no filmmaker, including those born to the Manipuri ethos and experience, has done so much to provide creative cinematic spaces to the individual and the community there as this Calcutta-based Malayali artist. Among those spaces are some that belong to the individual and his relationship with his family. At the end of the day, it is to be hoped that Tom Sharma and others like him who have been expelled from the bosom of the family for reasons that seem quite inadequate, will one day too soon be allowed an honourable and loving return to where they actually belong – namely, their immediate and extended biological families. After all, what is life without at least the occasional touch of one’s parents and siblings?
( Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)